I’m delighted to be part of the launch celebrations of Annabel Abbs’ historical novel, The Joyce Girl which is published by Impress Books on June 16th 2016. The first year of profits from The Joyce Girl go to Young Minds in memory of Luccia Joyce who spent most of her life interred in an asylum. The Joyce Girl is available for order here.
Today I have a wonderful guest post from Annabel Abbs followed by my review of this remarkable book.
The Joyce Girl
The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs, is a novel based on the life of James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, at the time of her affair with Samuel Beckett and her psychological decline.
The Joyce Girl won the Impress Prize for New Writers in September 2015. The shortlist was judged by a panel of experts in the publishing industry. The novel was also longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and the Caledonia Novel Award.
Avant-garde Paris is buzzing with the latest ideas in art, music, literature and dance. Lucia, the talented and ambitious daughter of James Joyce, is making her name as a dancer, training with some of the world’s most gifted performers. When a young Samuel Beckett comes to work for her father, she’s captivated by his quiet intensity and falls passionately in love. Persuaded she has clairvoyant powers, Lucia believes her destiny is to marry Beckett. But when her beloved brother is enticed away, the hidden threads of the Joyce’s lives begin to unravel, destroying Lucia’s dreams and foiling her attempts to escape the shadow of her genius father.
Her life in tatters, Lucia is sent by her father to pioneering psychoanalyst, Doctor Jung. For years she has kept quiet. But now she decides to speak.
Based on the true story of Lucia, The Joyce Girl is a beautiful story of thwarted ambition and the nurturing but ultimately destructive love of a father.
WHY I SPONSOR A CREATIVE WRITING MA EVEN THOUGH I DON’T HAVE ONE…
A Guest Post by Annabel Abbs
The Joyce Girl tells the mostly-true story of James Joyce’s only daughter, Lucia, a dancer in 1920s Paris. When I began writing it, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I hadn’t set out to be a writer. I’d never been on a course or read a how-to-write book. All I knew was that this extraordinary woman had been wiped from history and she deserved better. Sadly, the only biography of her (To Dance in the Wake by Carol Schloss, Bloomsbury 2004), was full of black holes: all Lucia Joyce’s letters, her medical records, anything she’d ever written, had been destroyed, leaving very little for her biographer to work with. I realised that if I wanted to find out what really happened to Lucia, I would have to do vast amounts of research and then fill in the gaps with fiction. I had always read heavily, my first degree was in English Literature and my father’s a poet, so I wasn’t daunted by the task ahead of me. But I had no idea how much blood, sweat and tears would be required to actually structure and write a novel.
As I wrestled with my embryonic novel I thought about doing a writing course. In my darkest hours I googled MAs, Curtis Brown, Faber and Arvon courses (amongst others) but I knew that, with elderly parents and in-laws and four demanding children, it would be hard to find the time. If I’d chosen a less research-intensive novel, perhaps I could have squeezed it in. But I hadn’t. And I was not prepared to ditch Lucia. If I’m honest, there was another reason too. I was terrified of being surrounded by bright young things with portfolios of award-winning stories and plenty of time to do writing exercises. I had neither. Half the time I was working out my plot as I simultaneously grappled with a hoover or else I was practising Irish dialect on my seven-year old while on the school run! I decided to go it entirely alone.
But it was hard. And it was often lonely. Oh how I yearned for a supportive group of writing buddies and a helpful tutor full of top tips. And later, as I struggled to approach agents (without a contact to my name and no idea how the industry worked), I wished I’d been to something that explained it all. The more debuts I read, the more I noticed that nearly all of them had an MA in creative writing. And this made me angry. My novel involved researching the lives of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, thought to be two of the greatest writers of the last century – neither had MAs in creative writing. Neither had been on any writing courses whatsoever. As I read around my subject, I re-read Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield and other writers of the period – none of whom had attended a writing course. Surely it could still be done?
Just as I finished my novel – exhausted after almost three years of researching, endless night-time re-writes and the juggling that goes with being a mother – my old university (UEA) approached me and invited me to have dinner with John Boyne. Who could refuse that? I’d been wondering how anyone with a job and kids could ever write a novel (at least I didn’t have a full-time job to fit in) and when I arrived at the dinner the UEA Creative Writing course leader gave me a quick lesson in the economics (pitiful) of being an author and the challenges (many) faced by his MA students. I decided that, although I’d taken the lonely road, perhaps I could help one person avoid it. I knew, from my own experience, that if I’d also had to hold down a job I could never have written my novel. I previously worked in business and so was lucky enough not to have money worries or financial constraints. If I had, would I have been able to resurrect Lucia Joyce? No. Of course not.
UEA’s aim is to have every place fully funded. But for now, there are sponsorships for Irish writers and overseas writers and young writers. My bursary, however, is for budding writers of 40+ who couldn’t otherwise afford to do an MA. I urge you to apply at http://bit.ly/1rUsNs2.
My Review of The Joyce Girl
I have a confession. Initially the novel didn’t appeal to me terribly and I only really accepted The Joyce Girl for review because I wanted to support mental health issues. With the first year’s profits from royalties going to Young Minds I thought it might be a ‘worthy’ read. That just goes to show what an idiot I am! The Joyce Girl is an utterly amazing book.
Firstly I have to acknowledge the outstanding and meticulous research that has gone in to making The Joyce Girl a completely fascinating read. I have learnt so much – not just about Luccia Joyce whom I have to admit I was mostly unaware of, but also about James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Carl Jung. This quality of research means the characters are vibrant and convincing, leaping from the page in 3D magnificence. But it’s not just the main characters that are so life-like. The wide supporting cast has equally engaging personalities who are presented in all their human frailties. This is such skilful writing. I kept hastening back to the reading in case the characters got up to something I might miss whilst I was away.
The next aspect that I was bowled over by was the sense of time and place that Annabel Abbs conveys so brilliantly. I found the prose mesmerising and evocative so that I was transported to Paris especially. There’s a real sense of an era. It’s so difficult to define the way The Joyce Girl is written but I found it hypnotic and beautiful.
As well as the narrative, all elements of the book are fascinating, even the Afterword, where some of the aspects mentioned in passing are elucidated, and returning to the quotations at the beginning after reading the story gave them a harrowing significance they didn’t have when I started. I thought the title too was inspired. Luccia is completely manipulated by her family as if she is some kind of possession and the use of the definite article exemplifies that. She is THE Joyce girl, not Luccia in her own right, but an item owned and used by others – even those supposedly trying to help her.
But what touched me the most was the presentation of those with mental health problems and their treatment by others. I felt an intense sadness several times during the reading and I wonder whether we have moved on as far as we should have done since Luccia was incarcerated. I also felt Luccia’s rage and fury with her through the first person storytelling. The she-beast of madness is also such a well-created metaphor, conveying the rage and impotence felt.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re interested in history. It doesn’t matter whether you’re interested in literature. The Joyce Girl is a story that invades your soul and stays there. In the time since I read The Joyce Girl I have found it impossible to forget. It haunts my thoughts and I think it isn’t too dramatic to say I think it has had a profound effect on my life. The Joyce Girl is, quite simply, stunning.
About Annabel Abbs
Annabel Abbs grew up in Bristol, Wales and Sussex, before studying English Literature at the University of East Anglia. Her debut novel, The Joyce Girl, won the 2015 Impress Prize and was longlisted for the 2015 Bath Novel Award and the 2015 Caledonia Novel Award. Her short stories have been long and shortlisted for various awards. She is now completing her second novel, based on the life of Frieda von Richthofen, wife and muse to D.H. Lawrence.
Before she began writing she spent 15 years running a marketing consultancy where her clients included Reuters, Sony and the FT. She lives in London and Sussex with her husband and four children.
For more on The Joyce Girl and Annabel Abbs see these other bloggers: